By Tracey Ashcraft
When we think of toxic relationships, our focus usually turns to romance. However, these caustic bonds can solidify in many areas of our lives: between parents and children, relatives, coworkers, friends, and even members of groups. Admitting that a relationship is unhealthy can be difficult, especially if it revolves around a long-term commitment (such as marriage) or a family tie. We often turn the other cheek and ignore the red flags and warning signs—until we end up feeling like we are backed into a corner. We may then go on the defensive, adding more negative fuel to the fire in the form of resentment and fear, which perpetuates a downward spiral in the relationship and our overall emotional health.
So how do we stop this cycle and begin to heal from a toxic relationship? The first step is identifying when we are involved in one. Then we can take some specific steps to break unhealthy patterns of behavior so that we can either 1) better cope in a relationship that cannot be ended or 2) break free from a toxic association completely.
Am I in a Toxic Relationship?
Take this short true/false quiz to help identify if you are in a toxic relationship with someone. When I am engaged with this individual:
1. I feel energized after we spend time together.
2. My feelings are welcomed and often validated.
3. Support around life’s problems is offered.
4. Frustrations are expressed in a clear, respectful manner.
5. Insults and/or name-calling are not a part of the exchange.
6. I don’t feel manipulated.
7. Sharing new ideas is welcomed and met with interest.
8. My time is valued and respected.
9. Physical boundaries are respected. (We never physically hurt each other.)
10. I do not feel guilty taking care of myself.
If you answered false to one or more of these statements there may be some toxic elements in your relationship. The more that you answered false, the more likely it is that you are in a toxic relationship.
Here are some additional signs you may be in a toxic relationship:
- You feel drained after spending time with someone.
- You barely can get a word in during conversations.
- The person is critical of you and may even call you names.
- You feel like you need to ask permission to do something.
- You feel like you are walking on eggshells around this person.
- You notice you change your behavior to avoid his/her wrath.
- You feel less and less confident around this person as time goes on.
- You often feel angry around this person.
- You sometimes feel scared around this person.
- You do not feel safe to be yourself around this person.
- You feel like you need to do things his/her way.
- You find yourself wishing you were somewhere else when with this person.
7 Steps to Surviving a Toxic Relationship
By the time you realize that you are in a toxic relationship, you most likely feel defeated, confused, angry and beaten down. The steps outlined below may seem over-simplified, but they are not; they take hard work. The patterns of behavior you have employed to cope with the unpredictable and unsettling behaviors of a toxic partner have become entrenched in your overall being and subconscious mind. These behaviors usually involve: pleasing, shaping your actions to avoid the wrath of the next temper tantrum, and walking on “eggshells.” Sadly these tactics do not work to change the unsavory behaviors of the toxic person in your life nor do they make you happy long-term.
If you’re ready to break the pattern, practice the steps below each day as if you are training for a marathon. You need patience and perseverance. Some days they will come more easily than others. Do not be hard on yourself for slipping back into old patterns because you are human! Practice, practice, practice. Keep working these steps and keep moving forward.
Step 1: Realize that you cannot change anyone but yourself. You may find yourself thinking, “If she would just talk to a counselor things would be better.” Or, “If he would just ask me for what he wants then he wouldn’t have to manipulate me.” No amount of convincing, wishing or hoping will change another person. He or she must want to change and realize that his/her coping skills are not working. Accepting that you are the only one you can change is the first step in surviving a toxic relationship.
Step 2: Stop trying to please everyone. Stop trying to be liked. Those who end up in toxic relationships tend to put the needs of others first. People pleasers often have endured childhood neglect or were led to believe that others’ needs were more important than their needs. Love may have been conditional, or it may have felt like love needed to be earned. In healthy relationships love is unconditional. It does not come with a price tag. Does this sound like you?
Once you let go of trying to earn approval things begin to shift.
You will feel more empowered. The toxic person may ramp up more at first, so it is important to stick with these steps. Regardless of how the other person behaves, you will feel better when you are bringing your power back inside yourself.
Step 3: Quit taking it personally. The other party’s tirades are not about you. You didn’t cause that person’s pain even if he or she tells you that you did. This step ties into Step 2. Once you stop trying to be liked or accepted, it will matter less what others think of you. When someone criticizes you or blame you unjustly, you will not feel the need to defend. When you stop taking it personally and realize it is not about you, you will be taking a huge step toward freeing yourself from pain!
When you are feeling attacked in a toxic relationship say to yourself, “It’s not about me.” Write this phrase on a small card and carry it with you in your purse or wallet. Practice saying it daily as an affirmation.
Step 4: Take steps to believe in yourself. When you start to believe that you are good enough just as you are, you will be able to realize that the avalanche of negativity that comes your way is not really about you. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Write a list of the good qualities you possess. Add to it each day. Remember you are not perfect; you are perfectly fine just as you are.
Step 5: Set boundaries and know that it is OK to do this. It’s a necessary aspect of self care. Boundary setting is not selfish or mean, even if it is perceived that way. When setting boundaries, you can let the person know that you respect his or her wishes but also will be taking care of yourself.
For example: Sometimes a toxic person will demand that you talk with him or her when that individual needs to talk. This demand can happen any time of the day or night. If your toxic partner demands you listen when you are in bed trying to sleep you can say: “I will be happy to listen to you after breakfast when I am rested and can be fully present for you.” If he or she keeps pushing, become a broken record. Repeat your boundary and do not give in. Remember to stick to the boundaries even when you feel like your partner will like you less than when you are in people-pleaser mode.
Step 6: Find a style of meditation that will help you on this journey. It is important to have some form of daily ritual to relax your mind and spirit. For some it may be doing yoga. For others it may be taking a daily walk. If you walk with a friend, make sure that you limit the negative talk of drama in your life. Try sitting outside somewhere that you find peaceful and spend at least 10 minutes noticing what you see around you. Notice the sights, sounds and smells. Carving out this daily relaxation time for yourself actually helps you to resist getting sucked into the vortex of negativity you may experience from a toxic person in your life.
Step 7: Seek help from a professional who understands toxic relationships. Dealing with the unpredictable behaviors and poor coping skills of a toxic person on a daily basis can really take a heavy toll on your overall well-being. You can become isolated and fearful of talking about the problem. A professional on your team can help speed the healing process and keep you motivated when you feel like throwing in the towel. Look for someone who has experience with personality disorders and who understands toxic relationships.
Remember that the process of recovering from the drama of a toxic relationship takes time. It is a healing journey and there is no quick fix. For true success, you need to learn that you are good enough and that you do not need the approval of others to know that you are!
Tracey Ashcraft, M.A., L.P.C., is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Coach. She specializes in helping adults and college students cope with emotionally intense people. With a Master’s Degree in Counseling, Tracey has been helping people heal from toxic relationships for more than 10 years. She brings her sense of humor and a tell-it-like-it-is style that helps people get to the truth quickly. Sessions are offered in Boulder, CO, and via phone or video chat. For more information visit www.bestlifetherapy.com.